December 20, 2016

Foreign Affairs in the 115th Congress

Gardner Peckham

Before turning to the 115th  Congress, it  is useful  to  recap  what  these  committees accomplished in the closing days of 2016. First, the Iran Sanctions Act was renewed for another ten years. The President chose not to sign the bill but instead allowed it to become law without his signature.

Second, a mini-State Department authorization bill covering embassy security and reforming contracting authorities was signed by the President. Third, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, the first of a wave of reform of the  Broadcasting  Board of Governors (BBG) was enacted.

In the next Congress, expect further BBG reforms and a new State Department authorization  bill.  Also  expect  action on North Korea as the hermit kingdom continues to develop longer range nuclear tipped missiles capable of striking the continental United States – among the most vexing foreign policy challenges the Trump Administration will face. Additional sanctions are expected from both House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC).

Do NOT expect early action on this  agenda  as  the  SFRC  will  be  completely  occupied  at  least until summer and probably fall with nomination hearings and  votes  as  the  new  Administration  seeks  to  populate  its  ranks.  Expect  Democrats  to   continue   to   build   their   narrative   that  both Trump and his  Secretary of State  nominee  are  too  close  for  comfort  with  Vladimir  Putin  and the Russian government and that Russian cyber-attacks determined the  outcome  of  the  election.  The  Tillerson nomination hearings will take place early in the year as the first test.fa-key-players

With the appointment of a new hardline U.S. ambassador to Israel, supporters will seek to again elevate the proposed US embassy relocation to Jerusalem but it is not clear whether the Trump Administration  or  outside  groups  will  push  this  sensitive  and  thorny  issue  which  the   Republican   Congress  has  traditionally supported.

It remains unclear how much, if any, real effort will be made to re-spool Iran and Cuba sanctions   which to varying degrees were unraveled by the Obama Administration.  A  good  case  could  be made that looking backward would be destructive, time consuming, and at the end of the day, unsuccessful. Our best guess is that the focus will be more on looking forward and seeking to curb Iran’s meddling and slowing the pace of liberalization with Cuba pending democratic reform there. One should not hold their breath on either  outcome.

As with other issues, the two committees will likely pursue an Administration-driven agenda and if history is any guide, they will also be driven by the crisis-du-jour that none of us can now predict   with any certainty.